EAL strategies to encourage literacy improvement

With the proportion of EAL students growing year on year, it has been the priority of lots of hard working schools and teachers to start implementing specific EAL strategies to help their learners thrive within the English school system. So, when the Education Policy Institute released a report into attainment gaps in August 2017- with a particular section focusing on how the attainment levels of EAL students compared with their peers – it was pretty nerve-wracking. Well, the results are in and they are…


As the report concluded, whilst EAL pupils were seen to have “lower attainment than their non-EAL peers during primary school”, this gap had “disappeared altogether” by the end of secondary school, with EAL pupils actually being “marginally ahead of their non-EAL peers.” Whilst we all deserve a good pat on the back for this progress, the EPI were careful to stress that this was not a reason for us to rest on our laurels. There are still “significant numbers [of EAL students] who have low attainment,” the report conceded. So, the question remains: what EAL strategies can we use to help those students still struggling with the English language?

The challenge

I’m not saying anything new when I state that literacy improvement is the most important goal when it comes to supporting our EAL students. Vocabulary instruction is important for everyone we teach, but for students who don’t use English as their first language, it is especially crucial that we are regularly exposing them to tier 2 words, using a variety of methods that will make this language familiar and accessible to them. It’s easy to forget that, for many EAL students, there may be very few opportunities – if any – where they encounter tier 2, English vocabulary outside of the classroom. A student who watches television in their home language, reads books in their home language, and communicates with their parents solely in their home language is unlikely to incidentally pick up the language that some of their peers may have seen or overheard. In these circumstances, the responsibility is almost entirely on teachers and schools to help bolster EAL english learning. It’s a big task, but one worth undertaking to help your students thrive.

Meeting the challenge head on

When supporting EAL students, the key to ensuring literacy improvement is to be varied with your teaching methods, while being careful to make sure the activities are both challenging and accessible. Some of the most effective EAL strategies, for instance, are ones that encourage students to think visually. This is because images transcend language barriers. By encouraging a student to try and draw their interpretation of a new word, or by getting them to match a word to an appropriate image, you help them to make links between unfamiliar language and sights they already know and understand. They can draw from their prior knowledge and experience in a way that will help them to comprehend and retain new words.

Beyond this, it is important that you never discourage EAL students from using their home language. Although it may initially appear counterproductive, supporting your EAL learners’ use of their home language is a great way to create significant literacy improvement. As Jim Cummins asserts, “conceptual knowledge developed in one language helps to make input in the other language comprehensible.” In other words, it’s easier to understand a new language, if you can relate it to the language you already know. For example, when challenging your students to think about synonyms and antonyms, it’s a great idea to encourage your EAL students to think of synonyms and antonyms that exist in their home language. This way, you help them to form relatable links and associations between the words they’re comfortable with, and the new words they’re trying to learn. Then, finally, to cement these links and make them graphically accessible, you can build a semantic map that visually represents and explains the connections between a word and all its English and non-English synonyms and antonyms. From then on, they will always have a foundation of words they can build upon.

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